The definition of tanking and why Sixers fans should be embracing it

lottery

A week ago, the Sixers were in Denver, playing the second half of a back to back, against a Nuggets team that had won 13 games in a row, and had only lost 3 home games all season. Despite the recipe for a repeat of the previous night’s blowout to the Clippers in Los Angeles, the Sixers played a terrific game and led by eight with only two minutes left to play. Those two minutes contained a comedy of errors that was hilariously embarrassing even by the Sixers’ standards. Missed free throws, a missed layup, a shot clock violation, and a foul on a three-point shooter turned an impressive victory into a humiliating loss. The collapse was so bad that the postgame press conference featured Doug Collins’ maniacal smile that suggests he’s about to go on a three state killing spree (one of which would likely include Evan Turner). Former Sixer, and current Nugget, Andre Iguodala even admitted after the game, “We weren’t supposed to win this game. This isn’t a game we should’ve won.” But should the Sixers have won the game? Should the Sixers be winning any more games this season? Those questions sparked quite the heated debate on Twitter after the brutal loss, as some fans (myself included) laughed at the circumstances that had led to a loss that could help the Sixers gain ping-pong balls in the lottery. Others reacted angrily to the proponents of “tanking” in order to finish with the worst possible record, suggesting that only “losers” want to lose games, and that the lottery is no solution for the Sixers’ woes. Meanwhile the Sixers have gone 5-4 over their last nine games and played both Miami and Denver tough in losses. After a key (bad?) win over their fellow lottery team, the Kings, on Sunday and last night’s victory over the Bucks, the argument raged on and likely will remain as the key topic of discussion over the team’s final 11 games. Should the Sixers be tanking? And what is tanking anyway?

The definition of tanking is open to some interpretation. Dictionary.com defines tanking as “doing poorly or declining rapidly” or “failing”. Urban Dictionary, used to define many casual slang terms, includes a definition related specifically to sports – “losing intentionally or not competing.” The difference in these two definitions is perfect for the disagreement on tanking as they illustrate what lies at the crux of the debate. Many against tanking hate the idea of trying to lose, or not playing hard, or players and coaches giving up on the season. However, the proponents of tanking (the logical ones anyway) have never stated that they want the actual members of the organization to intentionally throw basketball games or not give their best effort in the attempt to win. These are professionals paid handsomely to compete and no one is suggesting that they sacrifice that professionalism or competitiveness once the ball is in play. Instead, tanking supporters simply want the team to follow the initial definition of the word – they want the Sixers to do poorly or fail, with a more long-term vision in mind. For a bad basketball team, which the Sixers most definitely are, doing poorly is by definition what they do. They’ve done so poorly that they currently have a .394 winning percentage. They’ve done so poorly that they have almost zero chance of making the playoffs in a terrible Eastern Conference. In essence, tanking proponents simply want the Sixers to continue doing what they’ve done all season long without trying – lose.

But more importantly, those in favor of tanking simply want the Sixers to manage their organization and roster in a way that reflects an emphasis on the future instead of the present. “Tanking” is merely the short-term result of a long-term approach. No one wants Doug Collins to throw games, or players to not give their best effort. Instead, the focus should be on who Collins is playing and which players are competing in meaningless basketball games. Damien Wilkins played 39 minutes in both the Denver loss and the Sacramento victory, scoring 24 and 17 points respectively. He played 26 minutes against the Bucks last night and scored 18 points on FIFTEEN shots. In both victories over Milwaukee and Sacramento, rookie big man Arnett Moultrie played SIX minutes. He played 21 minutes against Denver, but made a crucial mistake by committing a silly foul late. Damien Wilkins is a 33-year-old journeyman who has ZERO role in any future version of the Sixers that includes winning basketball. Moultrie is a rookie first rounder who the Sixers liked so much that they gave up an ADDITIONAL future first rounder to acquire him. Yet somehow Moultrie has been strapped to the bench all season on a team that is desperate for productive big men. Veteran Royal Ivey averages 10-15 minutes a game. Young guard Charles Jenkins, presumably acquired so the Sixers could take a free look at him, averages a DID NOT PLAY-COACH’S DECISION a game. Any lottery team that features Damien Wilkins taking the second most shots on the team has its philosophy seriously out of whack. Doug Collins clearly prefers leaning on veteran players over young players who are more mistake prone. But relying on veteran journeymen that have no role in the future of your organization in order to squeak out a few more meaningless wins is exactly the type of decision-making that the “tankers” are staunchly opposed to. It is vastly more important to develop and evaluate young players with the potential for roles in the future than beating the Kings or Bucks in the death throes of a lost season. Even more maddening is the fact that both Wilkins and Ivey have made crucial mistakes late in games – mistakes that are part of the learning process for young players, but unacceptable from veterans supposedly playing because of their “savvy”. If the Sixers were winning games because their young core was competing hard and pulling out victories, not one “tanker” would have an issue with it. But prioritizing meaningless wins over those players’ minutes and development is a fundamental organizational error in approach and philosophy.

Now that you have a better idea of what tanking truly means, the next question is whether the Sixers would fare better by being bad in order to acquire higher draft picks. Those against tanking generally spout off two arguments against the lottery, both based in the same philosophy: there’s no guarantee that by being bad you will acquire a franchise-saving superstar. To support that theory, one only need point to perennial losers such as Sacramento, Washington, Charlotte, etc. Also, the last time the Sixers were terrible and landed the number 2 pick, they ended up with Evan Turner who, while he still may be a decent NBA player, is certainly not remotely close to a star. I agree that there are no guarantees in the draft – there is a large amount of good fortune involved and the proper decisions need to be made. But couldn’t the same exact thing be said about alternative approaches like trades or free agency? One need only look at the Andrew Bynum trade and the Elton Brand signing to hammer those points home. So I agree with the “anti-tankers” on one thing: there are no guarantees….in ANY of the suggested approaches. But the draft also offers something that the other options do not – multiple opportunities to get it right. If a team whiffs on a free agent signing, as the Sixers did with Brand, they are essentially handcuffed for the duration of that contract. If a team misses on a draft pick, the next year holds another opportunity to potentially get it right. Regardless of approach, the most vital aspect of any organization is excellent front office management. Without good decision-making, and smart handling of the roster, NO approach will work. No one is suggesting a front office, that decided it was a good idea to sign Kwame Brown, Spencer Hawes, and Nick Young with the money used to amnesty Brand, is suddenly going to turn around the Sixers, regardless of approach. Bad management and drafting has handcuffed franchises like the Kings and Bobcats – not the lottery.

Finally, “anti-tankers” love to point out the lowly franchises in order to illustrate the point that tanking does not work. However, they conveniently ignore looking to see what DOES work – who has won championships and how their rosters were constructed. It has been exactly 30 years since the Sixers last title – a nice benchmark to see what successful franchises look like over an extended period. Below you will find the title winners, along with their best players:

1983-84, ’85-’86 Celtics – Larry Bird

1984-85, ’86-’87, ’87-’88 Lakers – Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, James Worthy (all Finals MVPs)

1988-89, ’89-’90 Pistons – Isaiah Thomas

1990-91, ’91-’92, ’92-’93 Bulls – Michael Jordan

1993-94, ’94-’95 Rockets – Hakeem Olajuwon

1995-96, ’96-’97, ’97-’98 Bulls – Michael Jordan

1998-1999, ’02-’03, ’04-’05, ’06-’07 – Tim Duncan

1999-2000, ’00-’01, ’01-’02 – Shaquille O’Neal

2003-04 Pistons – Chauncey Billups

2005-06 Heat – Dwyane Wade

2007-08 Celtics – Paul Pierce

2008-09, ’09-’10 Lakers – Kobe Bryant

2010-11 Mavericks – Dirk Nowitzki

2011-2012 Heat – Lebron James

That’s the entire list. So what can we learn from this? First and foremost, it’s extremely difficult to win an NBA title – only EIGHT franchises have won a title over the last 30 years. In most cases, the team with the league’s best player won the title that year. It’s the biggest problem with the NBA; it doesn’t have the year to year parity of the other leagues, and without a Top 5 player it’s virtually impossible to win a title. But that is another topic for discussion; it’s clear from this list that a team needs a superstar in order to contend and win a title. Only the 2003-04 Pistons stand out as the lone exception on this list, and while they were a terrific basketball team, they were definitely the exception and not the rule. The Pistons won a title over a Lakers team that was fractured by the Kobe/Shaq rift –  Shaq was traded just a month later. It was also the rookie year of Lebron, Wade, and Carmelo Anthony – a year that marked an influx of elite young talent replenishing the league.

As for the other teams on this list, almost every single one featured a superstar that was drafted by the championship team. Now those stars must be surrounded by other premium talent in order to win titles; for every Bird, Magic, Jordan, and Duncan, there is a McHale, Jabbar, Pippen, and Parker. This also obviously supports the most important factor: teams must be managed well in order to draft the right supporting players and not make personnel mistakes. That’s the difference between the Spurs smartly drafting Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to flank Duncan, and the Cavs wasting money on the likes of Antwan Jamison, Anthony Parker, Larry Hughes, and Donyell Marshall to surround Lebron. It’s not a coincidence that the same eight teams won titles over different periods – they are typically the best run franchises.

Some might also point out that the Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and the Heat signed Lebron and Chris Bosh in free agency. But none of those players are coming to Boston or Miami without the presence of Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade, respectively. As for the Lakers – no other NBA franchise operates like the Lakers, with the possible exception of the Knicks. They are the league’s glamor franchise, the Yankees of the NBA, and star players love the idea of playing in front of celebrities every night while living in Los Angeles. When the Lakers want a player, they often get him. They did it with Wilt, Jabbar, Shaq, Kobe, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard. They would’ve had Chris Paul if not for league intervention. They will ALWAYS be relevant. But if a franchise decides to base its plan on the Lakers’ blueprint, they will have a rude awakening because it can’t be replicated.

So the evidence is there – in almost every single case a team has drafted the superstar that has led them to a title, surrounded by supporting players acquired with smart drafting and front office management. It’s not a coincidence that the Sixers’ most recent title contention was led by their own drafted superstar, Allen Iverson. It’s the way of the NBA, and while we might not like it, or the long ugly rebuilding process that leads to it, the evidence highly suggests it’s the ONLY way to build a championship franchise.

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The Worst Philly Trade in 20 Years…The Allen Iverson trade

Iverson

Not what you were expecting huh? Certainly not on a day when over 500 people have already signed an enormous “Get Well Out” card for Sixers center Andrew Bynum before midday. But while it has become popular to classify the Bynum debacle as the “worst Philly trade ever”, the trade doesn’t even crack the Sixers Top 5 list of horrible mistakes. Many cynics would point out that only serves as a reminder as to just how many bad front office decisions the Sixers have made throughout the years. Sadly, they would be right. More importantly, however, the Bynum trade doesn’t even earn honorable mention because IT WASN’T A MISTAKE. Even now, with the likelihood looming that Bynum will never play a game for the Sixers, this trade has turned out much, much better than another transaction that took place just over 6 years ago – a trade that, after the Bynum smoke clears, will have set back the Sixers franchise nearly a decade.

Allen Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets on December 19, 2006. After 11 electric and tumultuous years in Philadelphia, the Answer had finally worn out his welcome in the City of Brotherly Love. The Sixers had missed the playoffs two out of the three years following Larry Brown’s departure in 2003, and attendance numbers began to decline as fans were no longer willing to pay to see Iverson’s act on a losing team. Rock bottom arrived as both Iverson and Chris Webber showed up late to the home finale in April 2006; the Sixers benched both players and neither even made an appearance on “Fan Appreciation Night.” I remember that night vividly as it was the last time I had season tickets, and the one and only time I’ve EVER left a game early. Disgusted by the antics of Iverson, and the handling of the situation by the franchise, my brother and I walked across the street to catch the Phillies game instead. Iverson should have been dealt that offseason; it was clear the team was badly in need of a dramatic makeover and culture change, and that the team was no longer a viable Eastern Conference contender with Iverson as the centerpiece.  Rumors swirled both before and after the draft that summer, including a potential deal with division rival Boston. In the end, Iverson stated that he wanted to remain a Sixer and got his wish – until the next season started just as poorly. Eventually Iverson was benched and reportedly demanded a trade. Now, instead of embracing the chance to rebuild with lottery picks and young players, Billy King was forced to make the best deal he could under terrible circumstances; by waiting until other GMs knew he had no choice but to trade Iverson, he removed all of his negotiating leverage.

In return for Iverson, Denver sent the Sixers the expiring contract of veteran Joe Smith, two first round picks and point guard Andre Miller. Instead of receiving a lottery pick in either the 2006 or 2007 draft, or young assets upon which to build or acquire another star, King settled for two draft picks destined to be in the latter part of the first round, and two veterans that were only going to keep the Sixers from being bad enough to have a chance to land a top pick in the 2007 draft. At the time, Miller was considered one of the better point guards in the league and was leading the NBA in assists. The Sixers were a putrid 5-19 when they dealt Iverson to Denver; Miller led the Sixers to a 30-28 record the rest of the way, including a 17-9 finish. At the time, I remember refusing to watch those awful Sixers, because I knew they needed to lose and it pained me to watch games and root against them. Instead I stayed up late watching Big-12 basketball, and developing a huge man crush on a skinny Texas freshman named Kevin Durant. In my mind, all the losing would be worth it as long as the Sixers had the opportunity to draft the budding superstar. Andre Miller robbed me of that opportunity and I will never forgive him for it.

Personal vendetta aside, there are obviously no guarantees that the Sixers would’ve landed Durant (or Al Horford) in that draft. In fact, the Sixers did extraordinarily well in nabbing Thaddeus Young with the 12th pick in 2007. The draft is often a crapshoot, as the Sixers later landed a top 2 pick in a draft that didn’t include the same type of franchise altering talent. More importantly however, Andre Miller turned the Sixers into the NBA’s nightmare scenario – a .500 basketball team. In the NBA, the only thing worse than being bad is being average – a team is unable to truly contend with their current roster, but also isn’t bad enough to acquire the top flight talent needed to turn around a franchise. Not only did he prevent the 2007 Sixers from finishing near the bottom of the league, but he had a tangible impact on the Sixers’ direction and approach moving forward. A 40-42 finish in 2008 landed them a matchup with the heavily favored Detroit Pistons in the first round. After stealing a game in Detroit, the Sixers also won Game 3, and blew a large lead in Game 4 at home before eventually losing the series in six games. This effort, as a huge underdog, convinced the Sixers management that they were only a few moves from being legitimate contenders. They resigned swingman Andre Iguodala to a lucrative extension and made an even bigger splash in free agency, signing Elton Brand to a monster contract. The transformation was complete – the Sixers had gone from potentially putrid with cap space and assets to a middle of the pack team with no cap room and no real title hopes.

The Sixers had remained mired in mediocrity ever since – their ultimate upside was an annual first round defeat at the hands of teams with the stars they so desperately needed. Only a Derrick Rose ACL tear prevented the Sixers from being swept out of the first round last season as well. Mercifully, unlike 2008, Sixers management was not fooled by last season’s unexpected playoff run. They recognized the ceiling of the roster and the desperate need for a star player.  Unfortunately the only way to acquire those players is through the draft – or by taking an enormous gamble. So, without a lottery pick as an available option, the Sixers rolled the dice…and it came up craps. But regardless of risk (due to injury or Bynum departing in free agency), the Bynum trade was a win-win for the Sixers. In the NBA, a team must be headed in one direction or the other – to a ring or to the basement. Without a star player (2004 Pistons aside), there is ZERO chance of winning a title. Either the Sixers had finally acquired the star that every franchise needs as its foundation or they were going to bottom out. While watching the Sixers bottom out has been brutally ugly, the franchise is currently in the best position its been in since the Iverson trade. They have cap space looming, and young pieces on friendly contracts in Jrue Holiday and Thad Young. They could have a top 7 pick for only the second time since the Iverson trade. The only fear is  management overreacting to fans’ vitriol by signing a mid-level player such as Josh Smith or Al Jefferson this summer. So if you’re reading this and have been bashing the Sixers – SHUT UP. And be patient.

It will take the Sixers a few years to rebuild properly at this point. If they are shrewd and lucky, 2016 may be a realistic target for a return to contention, and even that is an optimistic outlook. 2016 would make an even decade since the Allen Iverson trade – a decade lost after refusing to seize the opportunity to rebuild and embracing mediocrity in the effort to remain relevant. So curse Bynum on that card if it will make you feel better, gripe about the bag of balls received for Curt Schilling, or bemoan the Flyers trade of any young winger (JVR, Justin Williams) in the effort to acquire defensemen. But none of those other franchises have spent the following decade still looking for an Answer.

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Spring Training Countdown to Opening Day: The Oakland Athletics

So we start this 30 team journey with what may be, not only the worst team in the American League West, but all of baseball. As I did my research on the A’s for this piece, it was jarring to see the difference in perspective and expectations for Philadelphia’s former baseball powerhouse that has a payroll somewhere around the league minimum.  I’ve grown accustomed to the World-Series-or-bust attitude that now consumes most Phillies fans and the win at any cost approach that has led to the 3rd highest payroll in baseball. Meanwhile, the Athletics are trying to finance a new stadium, preferably in the San Jose area, so they can escape the worst facility in the sport and try to elevate their payroll to a respectable level. However, that new stadium wouldn’t likely open before 2016; instead of talking about acquiring Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols to help their moribund offense, I actually read multiple pieces anticipating the pursuit of Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper. So being an A’s fan these days entails dreaming of a new stadium sometime in the next five years and maybe landing a player that has just finished their rookie season (or who still hasn’t had a major league at bat in Harper’s case) if they ever happen to make it to free agency. Fun.

As is often the case in Oakland, there is more conversation about who is no longer on the roster than the current group of A’s. Oakland spent the offseason trading three starters and their closer, as they followed GM Billy Beane’s formula of spinning assets for future assets in the hope the team is ready to contend by the time those prospects are ready to have an impact. Often injured closer Andrew Bailey was dealt to the Red Sox for a serviceable outfielder and two lower level prospects. Starter Trevor Cahill and reliever Craig Breslow were shipped out for promising starting pitcher prospect Jarrod Parker. Starter Guillermo Moscoso was swapped for Rockies outfielder Seth Smith, who should help the offense a bit. But starter Gio Gonzalez pulled in the biggest haul, as Washington sent back top pitching prospect A.J. Cole, solid catching prospect Derek Norris, and two pitchers who will likely be in Oakland’s rotation this season, Brad Peacock and Tom Milone. While I won’t get into how Oakland fared in the trades, regardless of the results, Oakland will be a less talented team THIS season, after dealing most of their starting rotation.

That rotation will be led by ESPN the Magazine cover boy Brandon McCarthy, who finally lived up to the promise he showed as a White Sox prospect, by mastering a two seam fastball, throwing less pitches, and inducing more ground balls. He will be joined by perhaps the biggest surprise of last season, Bartolo Colon, who resurrected his career with the Yankees after undergoing an experimental stem cell treatment on his elbow in the Dominican Republic. Both pitchers are signed to very reasonable one-year deals and could fetch Oakland more prospects the trade deadline if they perform as well as they did last season. The rest of the rotation will likely feature a competition between Peacock, Milone,Parker, Tyson Ross, and injury prone Rich Harden. The Oakland rotation could receive a boost from the return of Dallas Braden (shoulder surgery) in mid-April, and Brett Anderson (elbow surgery) in July or August. In Oakland’s spacious park, this motley crew could keep the Athletics in some games, but unfortunately their offense will likely once again be among the worst in baseball.

You know you have offensive troubles when the marquee name in your lineup is Manny Ramirez – who will not play in the first 50 games due to his second drug suspension. While some see Manny as an odd addition to a team that is likely going nowhere, I like the move for Oakland. For less than $400,000, they can see if Manny has anything left in the tank. If he can’t play anymore, he’s likely gone; if he starts acting like….well, Manny, then he’s likely gone. But IF Manny can still hit, he provides Oakland with some much needed offense, and more importantly, another trade chip at the deadline. If you think no team in their right mind would trade for Ramirez at this point, get back to me if he’s hitting over .280 with any power come July; there would be plenty of interest, even if that is an unlikely outcome. Also, as loony as he may be, from all reports, Manny has had a positive effect on  young hitters in the past. Either way, he certainly can’t make the Athletics any WORSE than they already will be.

The real problem is that Oakland doesn’t really have any good young hitters for Manny to influence either way, at least at the major league level. First base will be a competition between Brandon Allen who has some power, but doesn’t make enough contact, and Daric Barton, who makes some contact but has little power. 3B Scott Sizemore has already gone down with a knee injury and the A’s really don’t have another capable third baseman on the roster. The outfield will feature solid but underwhelming veterans like Coco Crisp, Jonny Gomes, Smith, and Reddick, all of whom are average players at best. Oakland signed promising Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes to play center field, but he will likely need quite a bit of seasoning in the minor leagues. The strength of this team is up the middle, where SS Cliff Pennington and 2B Jemile Weeks form a very good double play combination and Kurt Suzuki is a solid catcher. Unfortunately, this “bright spot” says more about the Oakland lineup than anything else. Suzuki had a down year both at the plate and behind it, and the A’s are simply hoping he rebounds enough to be attractive trade bait. Pennington is no more than solid, but Weeks did show real promise, batting .300 in his first season with good speed. This offense will likely be the worst in the majors, after Seattle made strides to improve their hitting woes in the offseason.

Oakland does have a couple of decent veteran arms remaining in the bullpen in probable closer Brian Fuentes, and Grant Balfour. But the rest of the spots are likely up for grabs. Fautino De Los Santos is seen as the potential future closer, and could assume that role at some point this year if the veterans are moved.

Overall, this is a team with a putrid offense, injury question marks throughout the rotation, and very little promise for the foreseeable future. I could easily see the A’s losing 100 games in a division in which the Rangers are still excellent, the Angels have improved again, and even Seattle should be better. Don’t worry A’s fans, 2016 will be here before you know it.

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Thoughts on the NBA All-Star Game…and of course LeBron James

So the NBA wrapped up its All Star festivities in Orlando tonight with a typical high scoring affair that marks most sports’ All Star events. But despite the terrible first half in which neither team pretended to care about slowing down the highlight reel with a tiresome thing like defense, the fourth quarter turned out to be fairly entertaining. LeBron James brought the East team back from a double-digit deficit with a dazzling display of shooting, and showed once again why he is clearly the best player in the league. Then, with the East needing a three pointer to tie the game in the final seconds, LeBron threw the ball across the court for a turnover rather than take the shot himself, showing once again why he clearly isn’t the league’s best player. Wait a minute, which one is it?

I’m not dumb enough to suggest we can really learn much about a player from a glorified exhibition like the All Star game. But there’s no question that player tendencies do reveal themselves, even in the most meaningless game – the alpha dogs assume their roles (LeBron, Kobe, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook), only guys like Andre Iguodala play any defense, and Kobe jacks up bad jumpers instead of giving the ball up to his teammates. And of course, Lebron “falters in the clutch.” As if there could actually be a “clutch” moment in a game in which a team had 88 points at halftime.

The more interesting thing to me was the visceral reactions by fans and critics of LeBron alike after the game. As usual, the LeBron haters went way overboard by making too much of LeBron’s “failure at a crucial moment.” Not being a LeBron guy myself, I too made a few jokes along the lines of, “Well if that isn’t LeBron in a nutshell”, after his brutal turnover. But LeBron’s critics, including myself, are not really that intriguing; we won’t stop taking shots at the guy until he wins a ring and is the alpha dog while doing it – something I doubt will happen while he’s playing alongside Dwayne Wade. But I digress. On the other side of the fence, there were several people, whose basketball opinions I respect, that damn near waged a campaign in LeBron’s defense – he’s the best player in the league but he can’t make a single mistake without being  judged, he won’t be remembered for how great a player he is, lauding his unselfishness in juxtaposition to Kobe’s gunning, and so on. Just an outpouring of sympathy and logic railing against the ravenous mobs who unfairly harp on poor LeBron.

Look, I don’t particularly care where someone stands on LeBron and his career up to this point. I understand the source for the criticism as well as the fact that he is one of the most gifted players to ever play the game. But while I know there are many critics that go overboard, I can at least understand the root of the contempt and the nitpicking. I have a much harder time relating to those that feel the need to swing the needle the opposite direction. It’s as if they feel the need to overcompensate for the irrational beraters of LeBron by being the voice of reason that not only acknowledges, but extols his greatness. I think both sides are right to an extent; as is the case with many debates, both arguments merit debate and have their valid points. But while I understand what LeBron has done to bring out the overzealous critics, I don’t understand what he has done to this point for anyone to defend him so vigorously.

The argument for LeBron goes something like this: he’s the best all around player in the league by a wide margin, and has been for some time. He’s a nightmare of a matchup on both sides of the court, and may be the most athletically gifted individual to ever play the game. But we know all this. No one is really denying LeBron’s talents. Apparently though, we are supposed to let LeBron’s greatness overshadow those much less frequent moments when he is not so great. Is it unfair to dispute a player’s historical significance based on a handful of overwhelming moments? Absolutely. But in order to enter the pantheon of players that weren’t just great, but legendary, one needs to have those moments which are indelible in your memory. While it may be unfair that those handful of moments should outweigh the greater body of work, that doesn’t make it any less true.

Until LeBron has the moments, I don’t understand the rush to defend him. Other than his frequent spectacular play, which no one really disputes, this is a guy that has often painted the bullseye on his own back. He mailed in his last playoff series in Cleveland against the Celtics once he felt like he couldn’t carry his inferior team any further. He ripped out the heart of a city on national television with no regard for how egotistical and self-centered his Decision would come across. He chose to team with one of his biggest on-court rivals (and a proven killer) instead of joining the best team (Chicago) or becoming a near mythological figure in New York. He absolutely shrunk up and disappeared in the Finals last season, when the opportunity presented itself to take the reins and end the silly talk. All of these things are indisputably true, and cannot be debated by even the most ardent LeBron supporter. Regardless of how much you may appreciate LeBron’s ability and talent, I’m not sure how anyone could muster up the passion to defend him so vigorously considering these truths. To me, LeBron’s biggest sin is the fact that he’s completely unlikable. While it may not (and shouldn’t) affect his standing in the league both now and historically, it does puzzle me as to why certain people are so eager to defend him.

As for where I stand on LeBron, I’ll tell you this. As my Sixers prepared to face off against the Heat in last year’s playoffs, I was deathly afraid of one player – and it wasn’t LeBron James. Dwayne Wade scared the hell out of me because he’s a “killer”; a guy that I don’t want with the ball when a game is in its most crucial moments. Forget the stats, forget shooting percentages, forget how many bad shots they may force up – a killer is a guy that terrifies you when they have the ball in the waning moments, whether they always come through or not. So the statistics may bear out that Kobe is overrated as a “closer”, and he certainly takes many a bad shot in his effort to be a hero. But anyone who tells you they would rather that LeBron have the ball down 1 instead of Kobe, or Wade, or Chris Paul, or Kevin Durant – all guys I consider killers – is a flat out liar. LeBron is missing something that those guys have; it’s not quantifiable, and I can’t show it to you on a statistical analysis. Certain players exude a confidence in the moment, regardless of success or failure; they don’t need to be All Stars to have it. Robert Horry had it, Reggie Miller had it, even Jeremy Lin has it. It many cases, the confidence is completely irrational, but it’s vital to being a killer. The worst part is, despite not liking the guy, I want LeBron to be that type of killer. As a basketball fan, it frustrates me that he continues to lack something. So as the All Star game winded down, and LeBron had the ball with the clock ticking away, all I wanted was for him to have the confidence to take the shot – I didn’t care if it went in or not, I just wanted him to shoot it. But LeBron James, for all his greatness, continues to disappoint. And that point is not defendable.

Other notes:

The NBA All Star game is easily the best of all the major sports. Sure, it was brutal for three quarters but the competitive fourth quarter was more than we get in the NFL or NHL versions, which lack the physicality that is essential to those sports. Even when the baseball games have been competitive, the best players on each team have already played their two innings and called it a night by the time the game is decided. At least the NBA All Star game is normally highly competitve in the final frame and the league’s best players decide the outcome.

The disparity in talent level between the two conferences was glaringly evident. While the utter lack of effort was partly to blame for the East’s enormous deficit, the fact that their second unit was so undermanned was a large reason the score was so one-sided for much of the game. Other than Deron Williams, the East was running out Luol Deng, Iguodala, and Roy Hibbert against the likes of Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Love. LaMarcus Aldridge, Steve Nash, and Tony Parker could barely get any run for the insanely deep West team.

The NBA needs to just rip off the entire NHL All Star concept. Pick teams playground style with captains, and let those teams compete in ALL events for the weekend. No one wants to see non All Stars competing in events on All Star weekend. As for getting the players to compete in events, make large donations ($1 million) to the charities of choice for the winners. Let LeBron, Blake and company explain to the American Cancer Society why they didn’t try to win them a million bucks because they didn’t feel like being in the dunk contest. Also, please, please, please, institute a H.O.R.S.E. event instead of the awful Shooting Stars segment.

Finally, the league competition committee met this weekend and considered implementing changes such as reducing high fives during free throws and other inane nonsense. Here’s a worthwhile suggestion: institute a handshake line at the conclusion of playoff series. Yes, I’m ripping off the NHL again, but to me one of the coolest momen’s in sports is watching guys that just tried to murder each other for 7 games, line up and congratulate each other in the ultimate display of sportsmanship. This idea is also inspired by something I witnessed this weekend. We were waiting in the lobby of the gym before my daughter’s basketball game, as the preceding games finished. A father yanked his young son (maybe 6 or 7) out of the gym and firmly scolded him for not shaking hands in the line at the end of a game – “Win or lose, it doesn’t matter, you shake hands! That’s what sportsmanship is about. I better never see that again because if I do you won’t ever play sports again, do you understand me?” Other than being impressed by a parent actually disciplining a child on the spot for unacceptable behavior, and sending a good message, it struck me that these kids are heavily influenced by what they watch on TV. Ultimately it’s every parent’s job to do exactly what that Dad in the gym did; but wouldn’t seeing the greatest players in the game display that sportsmanship be the perfect message for young NBA fans?

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Temple could be making a Big mistake

As a Temple alum, yesterday’s news that the Big East is finally looking to add Temple as an all sports member, as soon as next season for football, was big news. The reaction from most people affiliated with the university has been overwhelmingly positive, as many feel that Temple is finally getting the national attention and respect it deserves. They also have the added bonus of thumbing their nose (and using other fingers) at Villanova, who has long attempted to keep Temple from being a member, particularly in basketball. As the celebration commences over the likely inclusion of Temple in a “big time” conference, I may be the only person who thinks joining the Big East is NOT the best thing for Temple University.

Temple and the Big East conference have had a long, hot/cold relationship over the last 30+ years. Temple had an opportunity to join the original Big East at its inception, but held up in the hope that Joe Paterno and Penn State would include them in a proposed Eastern football conference. But Paterno wanted a conference with no revenue sharing in football, so the proposed conference never got off the ground, and Temple had to wait until 1991, when the Big East decided to try to be a major football conference by adding Miami, Virginia Tech, Rutgers, and West Virginia, along with Temple. In 2004, the Big East kicked Temple out of the conference for failing to field a competitive football team and a lack of fan support. Now, less than a decade later, as Temple’s football team is coming off its second ever bowl win, and Fran Dunphy has led the basketball team into the Top 25 once again, the Big East has finally come crawling back to Temple – this time with an all sports offer that Temple would be crazy to turn down. Right?

WRONG. The most important detail everyone is missing in the hoopla over Temple joining a big time conference is this: THE BIG EAST IS NO LONGER A BIG TIME CONFERENCE. Don’t believe me? Miami, Boston College, and Virginia Tech all bolted for the ACC in 2004. West Virginia is headed to the Big 12 next year. Pittsburgh and charter member Syracuse are bailing to join the ACC in 2014. TCU turned down the Big East to join the Big 12 instead. TCU!! If the Big East is such a “premier” conference that Temple should be desperate to join, then why are all the other major athletic programs fleeing like rats from a sinking ship? Because they see the writing on the wall, and Temple should too. As much as it pains me to say it, the Big East is dead.

There are many arguments as to how the Big East ended up on life support. Some would say they allowed the basketball schools (like Villanova!!) too much power, denying Penn State admission in 1982 among other mistakes. While it’s true that the attempt to maintain its identity as a basketball conference may have led to its demise, the Big East was originally created to be exactly that. And while some claim it was foolish to have large state schools competing with tiny private schools in the same conference, the Big East’s vision worked for the better part of 25 years, as it established itself as the premier basketball conference in the country; just two years ago, they landed a record 10 NCAA tournament berths. But a basketball conference was doomed as soon as college football formed the Bowl Alliance in 1995, which led to the current BCS system in 1998. Suddenly any program not included in a major football conference was risking its opportunities to land lucrative bowl bids and share millions in TV revenue sharing. Once this happened, the Big East never had a chance to retain its key football members, and every step taken since then has only been scrabbling at the ledge to delay the inevitable plummet off the cliff – including the invitation extended to include Temple’s resurgent football program.

Speaking of that football program, no one would argue, even me, that a move from the MAC to the Big East is almost a no brainer decision – in the short run. Regardless of the future of the conference, it is still considered by most (even if it’s mistakenly) to be a “premier’ conference, and does receive an automatic BCS bowl bid, as well as more consideration for its schools for other bowls. Finishing 3rd or 4th in the MAC means sweating over a bowl bid; doing the same in the Big East virtually guarantees one. The affiliation would help with recruiting in all sports immediately.

However, Temple’s athletics department and administrators need to take a long-term view of this. The Big East isn’t finished dealing with potential defections. ESPN seems to be pushing for a 4×16 super conference format that would include the Pac 10, SEC, Big 12, and ACC. One of the Big 12’s likely targets is Louisville, which already turned down an offer to join the Big 12 once, but with the defections of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, would be much more receptive to an offer the second time around. When the ACC also looks to add 2 more teams, it almost definitely would include Connecticut and one more school, which could be Rutgers, Cincinnati…or Temple.

Instead of grabbing the branch being extended by the Big East to only delay the inevitable fall over the cliff, the ACC is where Temple’s attention should be focused. While some may be concerned about the risk involved in hoping for an ACC invitation, and being left out of a major conference when it comes, Temple has much more leverage than people realize. As these super conferences are being drawn up and conferences are frantically looking for schools to compete, Temple has more options than ever. With the resurgence of the football program and a historically strong basketball program in the city’s fifth largest market, Temple is one of the most attractive schools available on the market. It’s no coincidence that the Big East finally swooped in with an all sports offer after rumors swirled about potentially joining a new conference created by the merger of the Mountain West and Conference USA.

Not to mention joining the Big East now would raise the level of competition by name only, particularly in basketball. Temple is not joining the Big East that had the most riveting conference tournament in the country. They’re joining the former Conference USA – Houston, SMU, UCF, Boise State, De Paul, South Florida…UGH. If Connecticut and Louisville join the rush to leave the Big East, the only premier basketball teams in the conference will be Georgetown, Villanova, Memphis, Notre Dame, and Marquette. The A10 has similar strength at the top of the conference, despite not getting its due, and offers the added benefit of maintaining rivalries with Big 5 schools Lasalle and St. Joe’s. I find it funny how Temple fans love to rip Nova but are willing to disrupt the Big 5 even further at the drop of a hat.

Lastly, if Temple joins the Big East for the 2012 football season, reports say it will cost Temple somewhere in the neighborhood of $4.5 million to dump its current affiliations with the Atlantic 10 and MAC. That’s a lot of coin for a school that is facing budget cuts from the state. While others would quickly point out the revenue windfall from being a member of a BCS conference, I’ll point out this little secret that’s not often talked about – the Big East may not be a part of the BCS after 2013. The conference will be evaluated along with all other member conferences to see if it should retain its status as an automatic qualifier. This is why the conference reached across the country to invite Boise State despite it only being “East” of the state of Washington. The Big East knows their lack of competitive football programs means their automatic bid is in serious jeopardy, and is desperately trying to bolster its resume before 2013. While Boise State and San Diego State have accepted to join starting in 2013, those decisions could be altered, much like TCU, if further defections are announced or better offers are extended.

By overruling charter member Villanova’s long time opposition to sharing its market with Temple, the Big East’s desperation couldn’t be more evident. I, for one, hope Temple doesn’t show the same desperation to be included with the “big boys” and make a BIG mistake in the process.

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Finally a hockey column

So I know I’ve been promising a hockey column both in print and in person for quite a while now. Despite not being a big hockey guy, I certainly recognize that I’ve totally neglected the Flyers up to this point in what is one of the few hockey crazy cities in the United States. But while I follow and root for the Flyers, I readily admit that I don’t have an extensive knowledge of the game. It’s the only major sport I never played as a youth (soccer doesn’t count even less than hockey in the U.S. as a major sport). So despite knowing a large percentage of the players and all the rules, I don’t really have the grasp on the intricacies of the game that only those that play it understand. While I can speak with great authority on defensive rotations in basketball, or blitz packages in football, I don’t have the first clue what the various systems in hockey entail, or even the specific differences between them. I hold my writing to an extremely high personal standard both in structure and content; if I can’t speak intelligently about a topic, I’m not going to attempt to fool anyone by pretending I know more than I do. Too much of that goes on in the blogging world as it is.

However, with the goaltending situation rising to a crescendo yet again in Philadelphia amid the playoff push, I knew that I could no longer ignore the issues plaguing the Orange and Black. When Ilya Bryzgalov once again allowed a couple soft goals tonight while the opposing netminder stood on his head, I knew the situation needed to be addressed immediately. If Wayne Simmonds hadn’t rescued Bryz by scoring to tie the game with ten seconds left, the mob would’ve reached Defcon 5 levels. Even with Jaromir Jagr’s game winner in overtime, the goalie is guaranteed to be the target of venomous Flyers fans on the airwaves yet again tomorrow. However, while I followed along with the events of the Flyers game, I was busy watching my own nightmare, as the Sixers lost their fourth straight game on the road in Memphis. While the Flyers defense/goaltending continues to fail them, the Sixers have simply stopped scoring. So this focus on the Flyers is also a welcome distraction to help me retain a shred of sanity until the NBA All Star break this weekend.

Since I was too busy with my own train wreck of a team, I turned to someone who CAN speak with authority and intelligence on the Flyers. The Barback on Fridays at my job is one of the biggest Flyers fans I know; more importantly, he’s not your typical absurd whiny Flyers fan that turns off the other teams’ fan bases (sorry but it’s true, I wrote about it here). He’s passionate without being unreasonable, a traditionalist that loves fighting in hockey and hates the shootout. We often spend Friday nights peppering each other with questions about each other’s first loves in order to get an informed opinion on each other’s sport of choice. I ask how he feels about the latest Flyers trade rumors; he asks me what the hell is wrong with the Sixers right now. He asked me once if the public perception of Andre Iguodala was similar to that of former Flyer Jeff Carter, a comparison/question I liked so much that I meant to use it in a column. When Carter and Mike Richards were shipped out of town on the same day last year, I immediately text The Barback asking if he had kidnapped Flyers GM Paul Holmgren and taken over, in order to finally rid the team of “Captain N Coke” and his running buddy.

So welcome my new resident Flyers expert to the Guest House; hopefully he’ll become a frequent visitor to my Home. You’ll find his place in The Guest House here.

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At the Halfway Point, is the Sixers Glass Half Empty…or Half Full?

As the NBA lockout ended, I’m not sure that even the most optimistic Sixers fans (including me) would’ve predicted that the Sixers would have 20 wins as they approached the midway point of the shortened season. While I thought this team could/would win 40 games, I thought it would be a push to get there, and that everything would have to break in their favor. Lost in the current 3 game losing streak is the fact that this team cruised to 20 wins before this slide to 20-12. They have 8 wins by 20 or more points and several other double-digit wins. They have blowout wins over fellow Eastern contenders Orlando, Chicago, and Atlanta. While they’ve lost five of their last seven games, those losses include last second one point losses to the Clippers (on Chris Paul heroics) and Timberwolves (on a lousy call), as well as a loss to Dallas that would’ve been a win if they could’ve simply scored 30 second half points. They are still ranked first in defensive efficiency, despite their brutal February schedule, and have only dropped to 8th in offensive efficiency despite their current scoring issues. This is a good, young, deep team that plays hard and plays defense on a nightly basis. So why the sudden panic about the Sixers?

Panic may seem like an extreme choice of words for a team that still hasn’t quite moved the interest meter here in Philadelphia. But all the momentum the Sixers were gaining among casual fans is slowly dissipating during their current struggles under collective mutterings of “I told you they weren’t that good” and “they were playing over their heads and have come back to reality”. Even The Protege tweeted me today with his concerns, suggesting moves for Dwight Howard or Pau Gasol would make them better, or maybe shifting Lou Williams and Thad Young into the starting lineup – “well something has to change with Hawes out!”. Look I’m not saying there is not reason for legitimate concern. The Sixers are now 10-11 without Spencer Hawes, his injury doesn’t seem to be improving, and he doesn’t seem close to returning. Their halfcourt offense has grown stagnant without Hawes, as the Sixers were running most of their offense through Hawes in the high post early in the season. Without the skilled big man, the Sixers are being forced to rely heavily on two rookies, Nikola Vucevic and Lavoy Allen, who have performed admirably and above expectations, and a declining veteran in Elton Brand, who has struggled without Hawes drawing bigs out of the paint. After a ton of early home games, the Sixers play 20 of their final 34 games on the road, where they are just 7-6, with two more tough games before All Star break at Memphis and at Houston. Their backcourt (Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, Lou Williams, Evan Turner) have combined to shoot 37% over the last seven games, and insist on settling for long jumpers instead of attacking the rim when their shots aren’t falling. Once again, the absence of Hawes has allowed opposing bigs to sag more into the middle and discourage the Sixers from going to the basket. As a side note, if I told you before the season that Spencer Hawes would be so vital to the Sixers offense, how many of you would’ve slapped me in the face and told me to get it together?

So is the Sixers glass half full or half empty? Was Charles Barkley right when he said that we had seen this team’s peak and they can’t get any better? Are the Sixers destined to be first round fodder unless they acquire a superstar player? The answers, in order, are half full, no, and not necessarily.

While the Sixers certainly benefited from a friendly early schedule, that schedule should’ve also taught us something. There are a lot of really bad teams in the NBA; dreadful teams with little talent, little hope, and no direction. A cynic might suggest a team is better off being one of these NBA bottom feeders in order to acquire the star everyone is clamoring for via the draft. But how has that worked out for perennial bottom feeders like Washington (John Wall), Sacramento (Demarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans), or Toronto (Andrea Bargnani, Ed Davis, Demar Derozan)? For every team that strikes gold with a Kevin Durant, Derek Rose, or Blake Griffen, there is another team that has annual lottery picks and a lousy basketball team. The Sixers’ Vucevic is one of the best rookies in his class, and the Sixers acquired him with the 16th pick. Even if you’re lucky enough to hit the lottery, it still takes time to build a winner around that player if your team was bad enough to be at the top of the lottery. Sorry, but I’d rather have a roster full of talented youngsters with a bright future, even if they’re not ready to contend for a title, than have an awful team and cross my fingers that we get lucky in the draft. The Sixers’ glass is most definitely half full.

As for the suggestion that this Sixers team has already seen its peak, I have a hard time believing that a roster with 8 of its rotation players under the age of 25 has already played their best ball. Without making a single move, this team shouldget better simply by maturing, playing together, and learning the nuances of the NBA game. While it’s frustrating to watch Jrue Holiday regress this season, it’s easy to forget he’s just 21 years old. Thad Young has finally developed a reliable jump shot, Lou Williams is one of the most dangerous bench scorers in the league, and Evan Turner has improved by leaps and bounds in just one season. While it can be dangerous to assume improvement in players, this team has already shown marked improvement, and seems to be full of young guys eager to learn, work hard, and play the game the right way. More playoff battles like their fight with Miami (a series that was much closer than its length suggested) will only make them better and more experienced. Even teams with superstars like the Thunder or Bulls have had to go through the trial by fire that is the NBA playoffs, and have yet to figure it out. There’s a reason why veteran laden teams like the Celtics, Lakers and Mavericks have won the last few NBA titles. Being “playoff fodder” isn’t necessarily a negative; it’s a natural part of the evolution towards becoming a serious title contender. There is no skipping steps. It just doesn’t happen. Ask the Heat who signed 3 of the best 25 players in the league and still lost to a veteran Mavs team with less talent last spring.

But the Sixers aren’t necessarily destined to be “fodder”. They’ve proven they can play with, and beat, any team in the league with the exception of Miami. I’d consider the Sixers a favorite in any first round series against the likes of Atlanta, Indiana, New York, or Boston – though I think the Knicks would give them the most headaches. Only the Bulls and Heat would be prohibitive favorites against the Sixers, and I don’t think losing a hard-fought series against a superior team is a bad thing for a team with the Sixers makeup.

As for the Sixers’ current roster issues, I don’t believe a major shakeup is the right thing for this team. I honestly don’t believe a major deal for a player like Howard or Gasol would even make them that much better. For one thing, you aren’t simply adding to the current nucleus; you’d need to subtract significant pieces in order to acquire either player even if it was feasible. There’s a good chance the Sixers would simply be treading water by changing the makeup of the team significantly, and an outside chance that they could be worse if the price was high enough – ask the Knicks if paying an exorbitant price for a superstar automatically makes you better. Not to mention the fact, that I believe both Howard and Gasol are complementary stars, and not primary ones. In other words, I don’t think you can win a title if either guy is your best player. If I learned anything from the Elton Brand signing, it’s that maximum deals should be reserved for players that can win you titles. You don’t overspend for a guy that doesn’t meet the criteria  just because there isn’t one currently available. No one wants to hear this but patience must prevail – it may not be next year, or the year after, but the Sixers will be best served by stockpiling assets until the right opportunity, or series of opportunities presents itself. I’d much rather do a lesser deal for Serge Ibaka and another player than spend my whole wad on Dwight Howard for the same effect.  

Lastly, if Spencer Hawes doesn’t return (and it seems increasingly unlikely), the Sixers need to find a way to jumpstart their offense, particularly their starting unit. But I don’t think adding Lou Williams or Thad Young to the starting lineup is the answer. The Sixers bench has been their biggest strength this season along with their defense. I don’t like the idea of playing Williams with Holiday too much – while effective in spots, the two players both need the ball in their hands to excel. This is why Jodie Meeks is a better fit for the first unit, despite not being the player that Williams is; the first unit already has two primary ball handlers. Lou is at his best when he simply needs to score, which is why he excels in his role, playing with a second unit that consists of guys that don’t need the  ball to contribute and Evan Turner who allows Williams to play off the ball. As for Young, he plays with such a relentless energy that is vital to his game that I don’t think he would be as effective playing more minutes. Against Orlando Wednesday, Doug Collins had to insert Young into the second half almost immediately because Lavoy Allen couldn’t guard Ryan Anderson on the perimeter. Young was visibly fatigued in the fourth quarter after playing most of the second half, and it clearly affected him on a couple of occassions.

To me the only solution (or reasonable attempt at one) is to insert Nikola Vucevic into the starting lineup for Lavoy Allen, and start playing the rookie more significant minutes. Vucevic possesses a similar skill set to Hawes (although he’s not as good of a passer yet) and would certainly inject more offense into the starting lineup, while pulling opposing bigs away from the basket. But Coach Collins seems reluctant to play the rookie significant minutes or in crucial situations, despite the Vucevic producing almost every time he is on the court. Against Dallas Friday night, Vucevic was the only player who could find the hoop without a GPS device, yet he hardly played in the second half as what should’ve been a win slipped away brick by brick. If Collins’ reluctance is not injury related, he needs to take the training wheels off Vucevic immediately. I know Collins treated Evan Turner with similar kid gloves last season, but the Sixers are also full of wing players, so Turner did not need to be rushed last season. They have no such luxury in the frontcourt now with Hawes out for the foreseeable future. The best defensive team in the league needs an offensive boost so they don’t keep losing games, despite holding to their opponents to less than 90 points.

But even if Collins doesn’t make the adjustment, don’t hit the panic button. Have patience with this Sixers team and enjoy the ride; because even in this accelerated season, building a winner is not just a race, it’s a marathon.

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